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FusionDesign: Carmen Lerm

Cape-based agency draws on international inspiration for local excellence.

Monique Verduyn

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Carmen Lerm of Fusion Design

The Netherlands is one of the world’s hubs of great modern design, a centre of innovation and experimentation in architecture, urban planning, industrial design, and graphic design. The Dutch are known for a prolific design culture that is evident in all aspects of everyday life, from the ticket you buy for the bus to your seat in a restaurant and the cup you drink your coffee out of.

It’s no surprise then that having completed a degree in Applied Graphic Design at Stellenbosch, Carmen Lerm decided that the best way to gain on-the-job experience was to spend a year in the visual communication capital.

“Dutch design agencies offer young people the opportunity to work and learn, paying them a small stipend,” says Lerm. “I got the opportunity to work for four different agencies in one year, which exposed me to the world’s latest trends in a way that would have been impossible in South Africa.”

On her return, Lerm joined Bates and then moved to J Walter Thompson’s Service Station where the focus was on below-the-line work.In 1999, she realised that the best way for her to apply what she had learnt about beauty and innovation would be to start her own business.

Using a life policy as collateral she went to the bank and requested an overdraft. It was declined, but persistence paid off and months later she eventually secured a R10 000 overdraft facility. She put the money towards her own design agency, Fusion Design.“My experience with the banks taught me that you cannot be deterred when someone says ‘no’ to you,” Lerm says.

“Give it a couple of months, go back to the same branch, and you may find a new set of staff who are more open to your ideas.” Two years later Lerm’s sister Nadia, an artist, joined the business. She brought to the studio a new creative and super-organised edge. It became clear that the growing studio needed its own premises, and so Fusion Design moved to its first premises in Woodstock, Cape Town.

“These were humble beginnings,” Lerm recalls. “We paid R2000 a month for 50 square metres of space. But that space provided the room we needed to grow and we began to bring in more staff and to expand our client base.”

In December 2007 Lerm bought office space in Millennium Business Park at Century City, and is now looking to expand once more. Fusion Design’s client list includes big names like MTN Banking, Metropolitan Health Group, Caltex, Chevron, Buccaneers School Shoes, RBS, TNS Research Surveys, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, EasyPay, Hylton Ross and City Sightseeing.

Lerm attributes the success of the award-winning agency to a few simple rules. To get the best from your team, she says, you have to ensure every process and every department is integrated, and that all are focused on a single strategy. “The entire team must live the brand, its values and its ideology.”

She also surrounds herself with specialists and a support team of people she can trust. “It’s vital to have a big pool of resources at your disposal so that you can call on the right people for the job every time,” she adds. “In that way you keep customers happy and always have them coming back for more.”

A visual communication specialist, Lerm also keeps inconstant verbal contact with customers and prospects, whether it’s via email, a phone call, or the company newsletter. One of the factors that have distinguished her business is her constant reinvestment into the business – on people, systems, processes,equipment and training.

The level 2 BEE-accredited agency takes on four students every year. These young people are brought in to shadow experienced designers and other team members.“There are so many young people seeking employment,” Lerm says. “Many of them have absolutely no idea of how to behave or interact in the work environment. Some of our recruits are awkward and barely capable of expressing themselves when they join us, but by the time they leave they are equipped to confidently enter the world of work. I believe that because I was given that chance, it’s only right that I make similar opportunities available here.”

Fusion Design has also created an art movement called Isibindi,which means “courage”, and forms the pillar of its social investment programme.“Many people are taught skills, but they are never exposed to a rich, nurturing and inspiring visual environment.

In our creative design studio we inspire more than 1 200 people annually to develop their creative skills.”The Isibindi calendar, created to showcase the creative talents of the Fusion Design team, is also used for the benefit of the company’s community upliftment programme. The team won a silver award at the Stuttgart International Calendar Exhibition in 2006, the highest accolade ever for a local entrant. Contact +27 861 321 777; www.fusiondesign.co.za

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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